Varda Mehrotra is an animal advocate and movement builder, exploring intersectional solutions. Most recently, she founded Samayu to undertake intersectional work and apply a systems approach for issues surrounding justice and animals in food systems. Under her decade-long leadership, FIAPO - India’s federation for animal organisations - was recognized as one of the most effective animal charities. She has spearheaded several large-scale undercover investigations, campaigns for farmed animals, companion animals and wild animals and was the architect of India’s largest plant-based advocacy network which has created many animal advocate leaders in the country. Prior to that, she spent several years organising within the grassroots animal advocacy movement in Scotland.
In Sentientist Conversations we talk about the two most important questions: “what’s real?” & “what matters?”
01:41 Varda's Intro
- "An activist first"
- Scotland, India, US
- Advocating for farmed, wild, companion animals
- Policy work, mobilisation, vegan advocacy, corporate engagement
- Intersectional thinking "in practice" "a bigger picture approach... correcting the omission of animal interests in the broader discourse around our planetary crisis
- Co-founding Samayu "working with the inter-linkages"
3:45 What's Real?
- A Hindu religious upbringing
- "All our holidays were spent in the forest... the value of the natural world... you hold it in wonder"
- Mum researched Buddhist philosophy "a lot of Buddhist concepts mixed in [with traditional Hinduism]"
- As a rebellious teenager "I was a staunch atheist for a while... Now the question of atheism has almost disappeared... ceased to matter"
- "I just didn't see any evidence... there was just no way I could relate to faith on its own... and the dogmatic side of religion... that I still strongly disagree with. I wasn't convinced then and I'm not convinced now."
- "My worldview has shifted - I don't believe in the single or multiple male gods"
- "I just identify as a nothingist"
- "That was one of the many things I was talking about doing differently... at a very young age I said 'I'm not OK doing that' [eating meat]"
- "Exploring modalities... #meditation, #yoga... evidence for a general sense of connection... empathy... acknowledging everything is interconnected"
- "I don't think there is anything 'greater than'... but certainly there is a fundamental interconnection that goes beyond transactional relationships... that grounds me."
- Naturalistic and supernatural versions of #spirituality
- The ethical risks of spiritual, supernatural & religious worldviews (#cults #alternativemedicine harsh punishments, authoritarianism...) "There's a huge difference if they are taking actions from those beliefs or not."
- "Buddhist monasteries are still serving meat and dairy"
- "Any belief system can easily become dogmatic"
- "Spirituality can be equally dark... as organised religion"
21:30 What & Who Matters?
- "Everybody matters... all human and non-human beings matter"
- "Each of us are on our journey to be able to put that into action"
- "Sentience is the scientific basis of including beings in our moral compass"
- "Looking at nature... and including that... within that moral compass"
- "Intrinsic value... Every animal exists with his or her own interests"
- "#OneHealth... 'We need to improve animal health to improve productivity'... that's a very transactional means to ultimately benefit ourselves"
- "I wish I could say every aspect of my life was perfect but it isn't"
- "Spend five minutes with a dog!" to realise the salience of sentient animals
- Witnessing animal slaughter in #india
- Grass-roots activism in Scotland "Every Saturday for six hours I would be out having conversations with people"
- Transitioning to veganism "I've never been swayed too much by what other people have said to me about my choices... there was a lot of resistance... ridicule... It didn't particularly phase me... my folks were very supportive"
33:23 Making a Better World
- "Everything's important... it's a whole system we're working to influence"
- "Shifting public consciousness... shifting the public relationship with animals"
- Public ballots re: banning factory farming / improving welfare / outlawing animal killing & cruelty (and therefore animal agriculture)
- "The goal is really to work towards a broader public shift... until that happens anything else is stop-gap"
- “It’s not just about improving the welfare of hens or cows or pigs or dogs… it’s really about fundamentally talking about a shift in how we relate to animals”
- The need to pull many levers… consumers, institutions, governments, society
- “From exploitation to really recognising intrinsic value”
- Do incremental improvements lead us towards a fundamental shift or are they dead-ends?
- “I’m personally quite forgiving even to distractions and dead-ends… I don’t judge tactics too harshly… we don’t know… we need to support all”
- “The movement that we have in India just now is very dominated by the global north… the tactics, the narrative”
- “One of the massive missed opportunities is the inherent recognition, in India and several Asian countries, of this integration”
- “If you remove the concepts and the narrative that we’ve taken from the global north there is fundamental interconnection that you’ll find within the Indian discourse on nature and animals and people… whether it’s through religion, spiritual thinking, cultural orientation. For many reasons we’ve missed that opportunity.”
- “Cows hold a certain position which is really political right now… cows just get weaponised for all sorts of oppressions… everybody steers clear… of religion but also of the fundamental worldview that India has”
- “Not really having a language to put it into today’s context… #ahimsa… concepts that are older and archaic.”
- “Intersectionality in my view is the way forward… we cannot advocate for animals by not acknowledging the interlinkages that exist with so many other actors”
- “There’s a lot to be done to tap into what is inherently already here… we have neglected it because a) it’s too political and b) we’re working with the narratives of the global north for many decades now”
- JW: “A lot of people genuinely seem to think that animal ethics was invented in Victorian England… or even later than that by Richard Ryder and Peter Singer and Tom Regan.”
- JW: The risks that secularisation and improving wealth levels (good for humans) presents risks for farmed animals as animal agriculture grows faster
- “Lots of younger folk… it’s seen as archaic… a lot of it did become dogmatic religion… they’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater” so the idea of ahimsa has lost credibility because dogmatic religion has lost credibility
- Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violence and the Chipko movement’s “tree-hugging”
- More recent Indian supreme court judgements “all of these have a fundamental connection back to this thinking… a deeper recognition that these interests are not separate… that multiple beings matter… but somehow that’s getting lost”
- “The animal movement is less and less connected to some of these ideas that we’ve had forever”
- JW: We can challenge the harms of Hindu cow sacralisation while still appreciating the value and power of ahimsa’s “do no harm”
- Rejecting the dogma and the weaponization of animal sacralisation while appreciating the genuine ancient philosophical ideas
- “The movement in Asia and India definitely needs to contextualise lots of these things in a way that makes sense – in a way that relates to the existing worldviews of people in Asia and India – that’s a major task”
- “One thing is not to have the idea that ‘we just care about animal interests and we don’t care about the farmers’”
- “We represent animals – we make sure that animal interests matter – but at the same time we are also including other interests”
- “Just shut down the farm”… “that’s not realistic”
- “We need to have empathy for the human beings involved in these spaces”
- Samayu’s work “Going in with that openness and that commitment that we… do consider all interests… has helped pave the way to multiple kinds of actors… it’s been hugely beneficial”
- “When we go with that openness we receive it… the fundamental bridge-building work that needs to happen”
- #JustTransition JW: “A lot of that is still being driven from a global north perspective – and some of that even there is still very simplistic”
- “There is an opportunity in India… There’s so much hardship… the small farmers & even the mid-sized farmers – they’re struggling so much… it’s about finding livelihoods that are dignified, that meet their needs.”
- “With some groups of farmers… a willingness to explore whatever makes their lives better”
- “It needs to be systemic… if we want a shift… away from animal agriculture it’s got to be farmer led… it’s got to be government led”
- “What sort of schemes, subsidies, market forces, policies would provide that practical context-specific diversification option or options for farmers to be able make that shift – in a way that’s good for farmers”
- “Unless it’s good for farmers it’s not going to be at a scale that has any impact”
- State & Indian national government response “There is general tolerance… we are promoting a world where there’s farmer interests, environmental benefits, animal interests… it’s not like we have the government super-excited about it either – animal agriculture is such a big industry”
- “really make sure it’s in practical action because intersectionality can just become so easily just a rhetoric… show this is how it actually can work… it’s practical manifestation. I think once we have that… I’m hopeful”
- “There’s certainly more openness from different political actors… to our message compared to when we were going in just as animal advocates”
- “It’s really refreshing to not be preaching to the choir any more… to drive change where it matters”
- “The only challenge we’ve faced in that is to make sure that we kept foregrounding animal interests… with so many actors… because it’s so interconnected”
- “Really make sure that we’re constantly grounded in representing animal interests”
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